The charity Changing Faces recently carried out a UK wide survey aimed at understanding the challenges faced by those with a disfigurement. The final report was released on 26 May 2017 as part of the first Face Equality Day. This report makes is completely clear why we need a whole day dedicated to the promotion of equal treatment of those that have a visible difference. In fact, I cried when I read the report. Even as someone living with a facial difference, a birthmark on my right cheek, I was shocked at some of the findings.
This day is important because 77% of the respondents said that an NHS employee had made an assumption about them based on their appearance. Once when I gave blood the nurse was signing off on my regular medication, an inhaler for asthma. She decided to give me a lecture on how to take care of my birthmark and then tell me all the things they can do to remove it. On another occasion my eye was irritated and the GP gave me a lecture on what they can do nowadays to remove birthmarks. I repeatedly said, 'I am happy with the way it is' but she kept insisting it could 'do a lot for me'. The assumption still exists around the fact that people with a visible difference cannot be comfortable in their own skin and that cosmetic surgery is required.
This day is important because four-fifths of respondents said they had experienced comments or unpleasantness from a stranger. One of the most harrowing comments made by a respondent was'...I had a guy on the tube who said my parents must have done something wrong [for me to look like I do] and that I should pray to the Lord for forgiveness...I moved down the carriage but he followed me...Everyone else ignored the situation.' I was on holiday in Cyprus and a cleaner in the hotel, who did not speak much English, was asking about my face. I managed to explain to her but she took her bracelet with Our Mary on it and insisted I wore it. My parents put a positive spin on it and made it out as if it was a kind gesture, not related to the earlier conversation.
I recently moved to London and the tube was a daunting situation for even a confident person like me, the constant staring can be very overwhelming. Therefore I was not surprised by the finding that 49% said that they have felt vulnerable on public transport.
This day is important because a third of respondents said that their condition or appearance had influenced a decision on where to go on holiday...many said that they avoided certain counties or situations. One respondent even said, 'I am hesitant at visiting countries where a cleft is seen as evil, a mark of the devil, or associated with the supernatural.' This is something I have said many times before. Although it probably would not stop me going on holiday it has influenced my aspirations for living abroad. There are countries where my fiancé would like to work because of his particular industry but I am almost certain that I could not get a job in those parts of the world because of the same reasons set out by the respondent.
This day is important because it seems socially acceptable to mock people's appearance on social media platforms. There would be a quick public backlash if a meme had a racist comment about an individual's ethnicity, but jokes about appearance seem to be fair game.
In January 2017, a picture of a Celtic Football Club fan who has a congenital condition appeared on social media as a disgusting meme. It was reported to Facebook and Twitter but both sites said it did not breach their community guidelines or terms and conditions. If this meme had commented on his race, would this have been treated differently? Probably. One in ten of respondents had been a target of social media content that mocked their appearance. This is my absolute worst nightmare; I have wondered if it will ever happen to me and what I would do in that situation.
As you can see, this day is really important to challenge society on how people react to and treat those who have a visible difference. What I love about this day is that it is inclusive of so many differences, it is not completely assigned to a particular condition or personal situation. The next time you see someone in the street with a something different about them, just give them a smile.
I'd urge everyone to read 'Disfigurement in the UK' today. Let's make face equality a reality.